Feb 20, 2019

Future Drought Fund Bill 2018, Future Drought Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2018 – Second Reading – Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (17:03): I, on behalf of the Australian Labor Party and the opposition, congratulate the member for Higgins, who has just given her last speech. We wish her all the very best for her and her family, and acknowledge her contribution and the sacrifice that families make when people chose to enter this House, so my very best wishes and that of everyone in this chamber.

I rise to speak on the Future Drought Fund Bill 2018. Let me begin by saying that Labor certainly supports government action to help farmers make their operations more resilient in the face of drought. Drought has been a reality of life in this nation for a very long time. Given the harsh nature of our environment in this part of the world, it is a tribute to the tenacity and, indeed, the skill of our farmers that they have been so successful. They are tough, hardworking and efficient. Their task is being made even more difficult by climate change, which the experts agree is leading to an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. We see the evidence of this on our TV screens with dispiriting regularity. We see honest people struggling hard against the elements and facing crises on an increasingly regular basis.

It’s not all about climate change, but climate change is a factor. Indeed, after years of denial, even some of those opposite accept the existence of climate change, having been dragged to reality by groups like the National Farmers’ Federation in my home state of New South Wales. And it certainly does make sense for the Australian government to work with our agricultural sector on drought resilience. We must assist our producers, who do so much for our nation. However, we must also think carefully about how we fund this important work.

The bill before us is inadequate. It asks us to create the Future Drought Fund for that purpose. Interest from the fund would be used to deliver up to $100 million a year in project grants from 2020-2021. But it wouldn’t be established by the government making an appropriation from government funds in the normal way in which it would for a purpose that it viewed to be valuable on its merits. It would be created by abolishing the existing Building Australia Fund. This was created by the former Labor government as one of our first pieces of legislation after we were sworn in on 2 December 2007 in legislation that I introduced to this chamber. The Building Australia Fund is a vital part of the Infrastructure Australia framework, because it can only be used for the purpose of projects that have been approved by Infrastructure Australia and put on the priority list.

Now, when it comes to funding infrastructure, this government regards integrity and transparency with horror. This is the third attempt to abolish the Building Australia Fund. First, we were told this was a necessary component of the asset recycling scheme, which the government set up to provide state governments with incentives to privatise public assets. It failed in the Senate. The second occasion was with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, something not linked to infrastructure at all. We were told that we needed to transfer the money from the Building Australia Fund across to the NDIS if we were going to fund disability services. Now we’re being told that, in order to fund drought resilience measures by farmers, we need to abolish the Building Australia Fund. It’s absurd. There’s no link between the two things.

We have committed the same amount of money as the government for a drought fund in the same time frame. The difference is that our money will be real. It doesn’t have to be taken from somewhere else with no relationship whatsoever. I was trying to figure out what the relationship between the two issues—the Building Australia Fund and the Future Drought Fund—is. The link is that they’re both run by the National Party, in terms of the portfolio. Quite clearly, what’s happened in the internal processes is that Minister Littleproud hasn’t been able to secure support for the Future Drought Fund in terms of additional funding. So within the National Party they have just had to transfer some money across from one fund to another—from Mr McCormack’s responsibilities as the infrastructure minister to Minister Littleproud’s responsibility as agriculture minister. That’s absurd! What next? Take agriculture funding to fund a new airport? This is not the way to do good public policy.

We could have a consensus in this parliament across both sides about the outcomes and the process if the government just had a bit of common sense and said, ‘Well, we’ll create a future drought fund, we’ll bring in legislation, it will be for that purpose and it will consist of $100 million every year from 2021,’ and we’d all agree. It would take 10 minutes and it could be in place. We could even talk about the time frame and maybe bring it forward. But, instead, we have this obsession with getting rid of the Building Australia Fund, simply because the National Party can’t use it as a slush fund for whatever projects they want in regional—or marginal, should I say—electorates.

This government is characterised, as we saw in today’s question time and in the suspension of standing orders resolution, by a misuse of taxpayers’ funds. And what they want now is to create a future drought fund that has no guidelines around it. Once again, instead of having some rigour about the use of taxpayers’ funds, we have the National Party back to its old games. Remember the Area Consultative Committees? And the old regional rorts program? On this basis there’s no reason to think that the National Party wouldn’t be about providing selective assistance to friends and mates rather than on the basis of the interests of farmers, the interests of making a difference and the interests of need.

That’s the problem with this. Based upon expert advice we’ll look to fund the adoption of new, efficient technology on farm infrastructure projects, such as better water storage, better natural resource management for farms and projects to improve soil management and to build resilience to drought, floods and the changing climate. Within 60 days of taking office we would create a panel of guardians to establish guidelines for the program. We’d include the farmer organisations in that process. The panel would include experts in water, soil and environmental science, and an economist, as well as representatives of the farming sector, local government and the Council of Australian Governments. It would report to the Minister for Agriculture and would be asked to provide a detailed plan concerning the fund within 12 months, if we’re successful. Given that the fund doesn’t come into operation until 2020-21, that is a practical, sensible suggestion. Establish a rigorous process so that the money wouldn’t be invested on political whims but on the genuine resilience projects that will make a real difference.

The government’s proposal doesn’t see any money flow until the financial year 2020-21. Our project would deliver projects as soon as the panel that I just mentioned finalised their arrangements, within 12 months of becoming government. So let’s be very clear: Labor guarantees the same level of funding as the government, delivered sooner to fund projects chosen on the basis of genuine expert advice. That is a much better approach than eliminating the Building Australia Fund, an obsession for those opposite. As part of their attack on Infrastructure Australia, for most of the term since the change of office in 2013, for most of the last 5½ years, Infrastructure Australia hasn’t had a CEO. They’ve had acting CEOs for most of that time. The major cities units, which were part of Infrastructure Australia, were abolished.

The Building Australia Fund was used for great projects like the Regional Rail Link, the biggest single federal investment in public transport infrastructure on record, in our history. It also delivered many projects of direct benefit to the agricultural sector. Take the Ipswich Motorway—in the shadow minister for immigration’s area—which is making an enormous difference to the sector to the west of Brisbane, and making an incredible difference in the Lockyer Valley and other areas. There’s also the Hunter Expressway, up to that pristine prime land up in the plains of New England and providing that linkage that’s there. The reason those projects had high benefit-cost ratios was the freight that goes on those roads—much of it agricultural produce. These projects delivered real change by boosting productivity and helping farmers get their products to market, both domestic and internationally, more quickly.

The government talks about its commitment to agricultural producers but the fact is that its record when it comes to infrastructure investment which will benefit the regions is very poor indeed, when you look at the underspends that are there. The promised spending in budgets on the Northern Australia Beef Roads Program was $145 million over recent years but the actual final budget outcome shows that just $56 million was expended. Sixty-one per cent of the funding was not used—underspent. For the Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program, $292 million was promised but the actual delivered was $157 million—a 46 per cent underspend. For the Northern Australia Roads Program, the government committed in budgets, on budget night, $520 million but only $288 million was actually invested—a 44 per cent reduction. With the Bridges Renewal Program—so important to lift productivity in agricultural sectors to allow for goods to get to market—again, only $220 million of the $375 million that was committed in budgets was actually spent, which was a 41 per cent reduction.

Contrast that with what we did in government: creating the Regional Development Australia program; creating the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program; committing to major road and rail infrastructure, including on the Bruce and Pacific highways; rebuilding one-third of the interstate rail freight network, making an enormous difference; and making the first serious investments in the Inland Rail project.

So we think that the government has got the detail of this wrong. We need proper guidelines and rigour, but we also need proper funding for it, because our farmers deserve that proper funding on its merits—not taking it from somewhere else, not taking it from Peter to pay Paul, but making sure that we actually deliver more investment.